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The History of the Social Sciences since 1945

Author(s):Backhouse, Roger
Fontaine, Philippe
Reviewer(s):Mirowski, Philip

Published by EH.NET (November 2010)

Roger Backhouse and Philippe Fontaine, editors, The History of the Social Sciences since 1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. x + 256 pp. $26 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-71776-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip Mirowski, Department of Economics and Policy Studies, University of Notre Dame.

This is a collection admirable in its motives but frustrating in its execution. Everyone will have their own objections to what they believe is left out in such a short book, so I will strive to avoid the obvious, and instead ask: is this an attempt to mobilize contributions toward a history of something that lacks a coherent center, and therefore any plausible narrative line? That is, does it resemble one of those penny dreadful non-histories of entities like ?salt? or ?dirt? or the ?wisdom of crowds,? where the primary protagonist lacks solidity and identity through time? Universities, it is true, often sport divisions or colleges of ?social science,? but they also all have Departments of Maintenance Services, and yet no one feels the need for ?The History of Maintenance.?

There have been one or two forays into a generic history of the social sciences, but to take one example, in the case of Dorothy Ross, it ended up being a history of something else altogether: ?American exceptionalism? or the ?American character.? The editors here don?t fall into that trap, but deputize various social scientists to individually survey psychology, economics, political science, sociology, social anthropology and human geography. One might have ended up with a portmanteau jumble of disjointed internalist impressions of the just-so stories the grizzled elders tell the children around their disciplinary campfires, like the late lamented Cambridge History (2003), but the editors have struggled to avoid that as well. To forestall that, they presented each contributor with a unique set of questions they would like to have considered (pp. 5-6) in the interest of lending the volume a modicum of coherence: issues like the impact of World War II, the hegemonic influence of the U.S. on the field, relationships to the natural sciences and the other social sciences, demographics and professionalization, the possible conditioning of the Cold War, the place of neoliberalism and dissent.? Inevitably, the majority (and even one of the editors in his own contribution) proceeded to ignore most of that, and forge ahead with the conventional local folklore of their assigned discipline in splendid intellectual isolation. You can lead a source to water, but you can?t make him think.

This brings us to consider a more disturbing possibility, namely, that bona fide social scientists might make for lousy historians, perhaps because they had been weaned off history in their very gestation. Adam Kuper, in his chapter on social anthropology, actually observes that the story of professionalization in the Anglo social sciences over the course of the twentieth century was pretty uniformly the transition from historical/evolutionary themes and approaches to what might charitably be construed as short-term policy concerns largely devoid of context, which includes the other social sciences. Adcock and Bevir prettify the trend in politics by dubbing it a ?shift from developmental historicism to modernist empiricism.? [Think ?the culture of poverty,? ?the paradox of voting,? or ?the optimal rule for monetary policy.?]? They neglect to point out that the scientism (which the editors gloss as ?the endorsement of theory?) that became so pronounced in the 1940s-1970s across the board was simply another manifestation of the same trend. In other words, professionalization went hand-in-hand with becoming ?useful? to the state or corporate paymasters; the last thing they wanted was history, except possibly hagiography. The awkward inability demonstrated herein to organize many chapters around some coherent narrative line may simply be symptomatic of a learned incapacity born of decades of professionalization. It is a shame this serial awkwardness did not itself become an occasion for theoretical reflection. But heritage isn?t destiny: this volume presents us with the irony that the editors start out declaring economists have no interest in their history, and yet, here it is two economists who have exerted themselves so mightily against the grain to commit real history between consenting adults.

In many ways, the most unusual and interesting contribution to this volume is the last chapter, co-authored by the editors, and bearing the imprint of Fontaine?s wide-ranging intellect and linguistic facility. Although it starts off promising a synthesis of the preceding hidebound disciplinary accounts, it rapidly turns into a survey of the numerous attempts to found dedicated interdisciplinary institutes in the postwar era: Yale Institute of Human Relations, Michigan?s Survey Research Center, Harvard?s Department of Social Relations, Carnegie?s GSIA, MIT?s Research Center for Group Dynamics, RAND and Michigan?s Mental Health Research Institute. This is an extremely fascinating approach, since these entities mostly escape the optic of disciplinary history; yet their efflorescence within a limited postwar timeframe and their relative failure speaks volumes about the quest to produce a unified ?history of social science.? Fontaine?s signature claim (p. 209) is that the discipline of psychology was almost always located at the center of such innovations; but I have my doubts. First, there is the observation of Mitchell Ash in this volume that ?psychologist? did not constitute a stable identity in postwar America; it might just have been the kneejerk methodological individualism of the American Century, rather than psychology per se, that provides the actual common denominator. Second, I would suggest we look to the intentions of the founders of these units; for instance, the Ford Foundation played a dominant role in the founding of RAND and Carnegie GSIA, as well as the Stanford Center for Behavioral Sciences, under the rubric of pushing its agenda for ?behavioral science.? But third, and most importantly, the history of these units reveals much about the inhospitable postwar climate for the prewar commonplace that presumed unity of the social sciences was their natural telos.

The historical generalization overlooked by the editors is that ?interdisciplinary? social science units shoehorned into postwar university structures almost uniformly failed, whereas those founded as freestanding think tanks, from RAND to American Enterprise Institute to Cato and the Manhattan Institute, all persevered and succeeded. This is true even for the odd case of Carnegie GSIA, which became the model for other business schools across the nation, but only upon dispensing with the original interdisciplinary structures initially promoted by Herbert Simon (himself then exiled to a Department of Psychology). The lesson may be that the postwar American research university could not sustain true interdisciplinarity in social science inquiry, but that military and corporate sponsors of the think tanks could manage it, but only by yoking it to a format that enforced unquestioned responsiveness to the whims of the funders.

This brings us to a final thought: maybe a ?history of the social sciences? is a quixotic quest because it presumes there is some unique ontological thing called ?society? to which all the diverse sciences devote their individual inquiries. While this may have been an opinion widely shared during the first half of the twentieth century, it is one that quickly lost its rationale as we approached the twenty-first century. Here I believe the contributors all underestimate the importance of the rise of neoliberalism as a major conditioning factor in the history. If indeed, people come to really believe that, ?there is no such thing as society,? to quote the Iron Lady, then it follows directly that there is also no such thing as a coherent ?history of the social sciences.? They no longer qualify as the subject of a sustained narrative any more than does the history of things colored brown, or the history of rectangular objects that rattle when the wind blows.

Philip Mirowski is the author of Machine Dreams (2002), ScienceMart: The Privatization of American Science (2011), and Never Let a Dire Crisis Go to Waste (forthcoming) and the editor (with Dieter Plehwe) of The Road from Mont Pe?lerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (2009).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII